Today we have an essay for you, from Francis Spufford, on how two prominent atheists — Sam Harris and Barbara Ehrenreich — have approached their profoundest subjective experiences. It begins:
To say, as people do from time to time, that science is the only source of meaning available to human beings is to consign large swaths of everyday experience to insignificance. (And to offer an open goal to any quick-footed apologist for religion who may be passing.) The implication of the maximal claim for science is that anything that can’t be brought within the reach of hypothesis-experiment-conclusion is to be ignored. I’ve heard Richard Dawkins, on a stage, respond to someone asking why people’s conviction of the presence of God doesn’t count as data: “Oh, all sorts of funny things happen in people’s heads. But you can’t measure them, so they don’t mean anything.” Yet atheists, like everybody else, fall in love, read novels, hum songs, and value the unrepeatable shadings of their sensory and cognitive experiences. The subjective makes its irrefutable demand for attention as soon as you quit the lectern.
So after periods of intense polemic there often comes a point when the polemicists double back to give subjectivity its due. It happened in the nineteenth century at the historical moment after utilitarianism had made its maximal claim that we are all self-interested calculators. John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography (1873) records his younger self’s discovery that, alongside the utilitarian reading list, he could allow himself the un-rigorous beauties of Wordsworth: “I never turned recreant to intellectual culture, or ceased to consider the power and practice of analysis as an essential condition both of individual and of social improvement. But I thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it.” And now, with the maximal claim of New Atheism just behind us, it seems to be happening again: a similar spiritual stirring, defended by a similar insistence that “analysis,” or its contemporary equivalent, has not been betrayed.